Maggie Hartford meets Liz Hodgkinson, the Oxford journalist who has written the story of the world's first female to male transsexual

Laura Dillon was thrilled to be accepted at Oxford University, but her happiness was marred by one problem.

Physically and biologically she was a normal woman, but mentally and emotionally, she knew she was a man.

Even nowadays transgender people have an incredibly difficult path in life. But this was 1934, when Laura took up her place at St Anne's, then an all-female college.

Ten years later the student 'migrated' to Brasenose – then a men's college – under the name LM Dillon. Laura had become Michael, the first woman in the world to become a man with the help of hormones and surgery.

It's an extraordinary story, and one that journalist Liz Hodgkinson will be retelling at the Oxford Literary Festival in April.

Liz, 72, who lives in Banbury Road, first came across Dillon in 1971 as a young journalist trying to break into Fleet Street while bringing up young children.

“I was told about this strange person who looked like Marilyn Monroe from the neck up and a garage mechanic from the neck down,” she says.

This person was not Dillon but Roberta (Betty) Cowell, by then well known as the first man to become a woman by surgery and hormone treatment.

“I was with my son Tom, then aged two or three, in the local Post Office, when I saw somebody who just had to be her. Heart beating wildly, I had just plucked up the courage to say I was a journalist and could I have an interview, when up piped young Tom: 'Mummy, is that a man or a lady?'”

Betty “took a bit of a shine” to the young journalist. They became friends and she gave Liz a set of love letters from Michael Dillon.

Liz published a book, Michael née Laura, which came out in 1989, but it couldn't tell the whole story. “Betty gave me these letters and then denied what was in them. She said Dillon was a fantasist. She stopped publication because she didn't want the truth to come out.”

Now that Betty is dead, Liz has published a new book, From A Girl To A Man, including material from the letters, and will share a platform at the Oxford Literary Festival with Betty's daughter Diana.

After leaving Oxford, Dillon had years of painful – and pioneering – treatment, then qualified as a doctor. While a medical student, he wrote a book called Self: A Study In Endocrinology and Ethics, arguing for tolerance for those who did not fit into rigid delineations of sex.

He received a letter from Cowell, who believed the author might help with his own feelings of being trapped in a body of the wrong gender. Michael ended up falling passionately in love with Cowell and risked his future medical license to castrate him.

After hormone treatment, Betty could then seek out the same doctor who had helped Dillon – none other than Sir Harold Gillies, Harley Street’s highest paid surgeon, who had made his name rebuilding the shattered faces of soldiers injured in the trenches of the First World War.

Unfortunately, Michael's dream of living a 'normal life' with Betty never came to anything. She had a partner called Lisa who remained a companion for many years. But because Betty didn't want to admit that she had ever been a man, she cut off contact with her family, including Diana, who was desperate to trace her father, but was rebuffed at every turn.

Michael's own secret was exposed – probably by Betty – in 1958, when the story of his sex change became front page news because it meant that he would inherit a baronetcy. At this time, says Liz, most people didn't know it was possible to change sex, and the story was a sensation worldwide.

Oxford Mail:

  • A rare picture of a teenage Laura smiling

He remained bitter all his life about this, perhaps because it reminded him of his brush with the Press at Oxford, as a champion rower for St Anne's. At the time, women's rowing was controversial, with some arguing that it would prevent women from giving birth, and Laura Dillon's prowess had provoked a Daily Mirror headline: “Is This a Man or a Woman?”

After his sex change became public, he moved to India, where he embraced Buddhism, becoming a monk, and died at 47 of unknown causes. Liz believes he may have taken his own life.

The book was used as the main source material for a Channel 4 documentary, The Sex Change Spitfire Ace, which told the intertwining story of Michael Dillon and Betty Cowell, and the courageous surgeon who performed the then science-fiction procedures, Sir Harold Gillies. The book has also been optioned for a Hollywood film, with a script by Frederic Raphael.

After her interview with Betty was published, Liz went on to have a glittering career on Fleet Street, and her two sons are also writers and journalists. Indeed, her younger son Will appeared at the Oxford Literary Festival last year to talk about his memoir The House is Full of Yogis.

In his book, he describes his 1980s upbringing. “Liz and Neville lived with their sons, Tom and Will, in a semi-detached house in the suburbs of London. Neville was an award-winning medical correspondent. Liz was a high-earning tabloid journalist.

“Friends and neighbours turned up to their parties clutching bottles of Mateus Rosé. Then, while recovering from a life-threatening bout of food poisoning, Neville had a Damascene revelation.

“Life was never the same again.”

What happened was that Neville started to follow the Brahma Kumaris, a 100-year-old spiritual movement which originated in India, but which now has a centre at Nuneham Courtenay House – leased from Oxford University – and an outlet in Broad Street.

Liz memorably described this in an article entitled: “The husband I love left me for the man upstairs (that's god).” In fact, her whole life can be traced in newspaper headlines: “The loneliness and endless regret of being a divorced grandmother by Liz Hodgkinson”; and then the response, from son Will in the Daily Mail: “I'd love mum to see more of her grandchildren. She's just far too selfish to make time for them.”

Liz, who says we must take son Will's writing “with a pinch of salt”, moved to Oxford in 2008, following the death of her partner John Sandilands. She said: “One major reason for moving was that Worthing had become very bleak.”

Several friends died and she made the move after older son Tom, editor of The Idler, gave a talk at Oxford Town Hall. She loves it here, with its easy access to London and grandchildren. She loves new challenges, and hosts paying guests in her spare room via the website airbnb.

She writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph, and has another book out this year – Dadi Janki: A Century of Service, the biography of the now 100-year old founder of the Brahma Kumaris outside India. She is “great friends” with her ex-husband, now a BK living at Nuneham Courtenay, who gave the organisation all the assets he received in their divorce settlement.

Oxford Mail:

  • First picture of Michael Dillon, taken in 1944

So does she follow their precepts of celibacy and clean living?

“Absolutely not. And I have had other relationships since my divorce.”

However, she is more than happy to publicise the group that caused her marriage break-up.

“Although I have never become a BK myself, I have always been quite close to them. I like their feminist stance and I like a lot about their way of looking at the world.”

Do the Brahma Kumaris cause family break-ups?

“My marriage would have broken up anyway. We were having terrible rows.”

She and Neville spent two weeks together in India, travelling around to promote the book and “never argued once”, she says. “We are good friends now, as long as we don't live together.”

Did her own life journey help her to understand the problems of transsexuals? Why was she so interested?

She said: “Betty was a very charismatic person, a very good companion, clever and witty. Because I am a journalist – I have been an investigative reporter – I thought there was a good story here and few people know about the subject, or what it's like to change sex. I was interested and I wanted to bring it to public attention.”

Does Liz agree with feminist Germaine Greer, who provoked a 'no platform' campaign by suggesting that post-operative transsexuals are not really women?

“Greer is right. At the end of the day, transgenders are still biologically members of their original sex. You are born physically one sex or the other, and a chromosome test can decide that. It's mostly in the head, but that doesn't mean it's not real.”

* From a Girl To A Man is published by Quartet at £12.99. Liz Hodgkinson and Diana Cowell (Betty's daughter) will be at the Oxford Literary Festival on April 6. See